Clarence Moses-EL, a Denver man who spent nearly half his life in prison on a wrongful rape and assault conviction, will be awarded about $2 million in compensation from the state, Attorney General Phil Weiser announced this morning.
Weiser called Moses-EL’s case a “travesty of justice” and said it must be a “learning experience” for the state.
“We have to learn from this … tragic mistake and action,” he said. “There is, I believe now, a clear and powerful example of financial and human costs.”
Weiser, a Democrat, was preceded in office by Republican Cynthia Coffman, who fought Moses-EL’s compensation claim and sought to delay a trial on the matter until later this year. Weiser told reporters this morning that he believes the state would have lost in trial and that paying Moses-EL now “will prevent the parties from having to relive the experience.”
“(Coffman) did what she thought was right. And I did what I thought was right,” Weiser said.
Under a Colorado law passed in 2013, people who’ve been wrongfully convicted and imprisoned are eligible to petition for $70,000 per year they spent behind bars. In Moses-EL’s case, that total comes to almost $2 million. He is just the second person to be compensated under this law.
“Although no amount of money can give Mr. Moses-EL back the half of his life that was lost to the Colorado prison system, this compensation will help him and his family recover from this traumatic ordeal,” said Gail Johnson, one of his attorneys, in a press release. “While official recognition of his innocence is long overdue, Mr. Moses-EL appreciates that the state of Colorado is finally taking this important step forward.”
Asked whether he’s concluded that Moses-EL is innocent, Weiser would not say.
“I’ve concluded that the statutory obligation has been met and that the right decision is not to contest this petition,” he said.
Moses-EL, 63, was freed in 2015 after a judge overturned his 1988 conviction in the 1987 rape and assailt of a woman in the Five Points neighborhood. Then-Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey’s office chose to retry him, and a jury found him not guilty in 2016.
Morrissey’s successor, Democrat Beth McCann, declined to take a position on whether Moses-El should receive state compensation, effectively backing Coffman’s claim to block his claim.
The victim in the case first identified a man named LC Jackson as her attacker, but police failed to investigate Jackson. In 2015 — nearly three decades after the incident — Jackson confessed in court to being the assailant. Prosecutors say Jackson later recanted.
Weiser said that he met with the victim prior to announcing his decision to allow Moses-EL to receive state compensation.
“She’s remarkable in that she’s been through a lot. She understood that the legal situation here required me to act in this way,” Weiser said.
He said that he did not speak with Moses-EL ahead of the announcement. Neither Moses-EL nor his attorneys were present for Weiser’s press conference. Moses-EL said by phone Thursday that he could not comment on Weiser’s announcement.
On Jan. 28, he told The Independent, “All I want — all I’ve ever wanted — is to put this whole ordeal behind me and get on with living my life.”
His case became national news in part because he was convicted despite thin evidence against him. The victim only identified Moses-EL as her assailant in a statement to police days after she was attacked. She said the realization came to her in a dream.
The story was made more notorious because Denver mishandled evidence. DNA samples thought to contain the attacker’s genetic markers were thrown in the trash by Denver police before they could ever be tested, even though the evidence was contained in a box labeled “DO NOT DESTROY.” Moses-EL has said the discarding of the evidence was like being “given cement shoes and thrown in the water just to sink.”
Even after police mishandled the evidence, Denver’s D.A. office and the District Court refused to give him a retrial. In 2006, then-Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey’s did use DNA evidence to prosecute Jackson for two 1992 cold case rapes, but he continued to refuse to investigate Jackson’s involvement in the case for which Moses-EL convicted and sentenced to 48 years in prison.
“I think what we owe — and we owe this to the people of Colorado, as well — is to learn from this experience,” Weiser said. “DNA evidence that is ordered to be preserved is incredibly important and there is no, to my mind, reason we can’t do better in this area. We need to be better. And that’s what we owe.”
Weiser spoke in passive terms throughout the press conference.
“I feel terrible that this has gone on and that what happened, happened,” he said. He would not comment on whether Moses-EL is owed an apology by the Denver district attorney’s office.
“You’ll have to talk to the Denver D.A.,” he said.
Reached by phone, D.A. McCann declined to comment. She said she and Weiser spoke ahead of his decision but that she couldn’t say anything about Moses-EL because of a separate, federal lawsuit pending against the police, McCann’s office and Morrissey.
No trial date has been set in that federal case, and Weiser said that his announcement regarding compensation has no bearing on the federal case.